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Reindeer shaman

Taking the P*ss: Did Shamans Really Drink Reindeer Urine?

Anyone who has studied shamanism in any detail will have heard statements to the effect that shamans imbibed the potent Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) in a rather odd, idiosyncratic manner: they would collect the urine of reindeer that had eaten the mushroom and become intoxicated as a result, and drink this urine in order to enter altered states of consciousness.

But is it true? In his fantastic book Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom (Amazon US and UK), Andy Letcher dispels many myths about ‘freaky fungi’, and the reindeer urine story is one. According to Letcher, it is “a modern urban myth that shamans or anyone else drank reindeer urine: an intoxicated deer would be slaughtered and eaten, by which means the effects would be passed on.”

So there you have it: the reindeer urine shamanism story has been debunked. One might think so, except someone has since disputed Andy Letcher’s claim: the expert author on mushroom culture, Andy Letcher! Writing on his blog, Letcher tells how a chance meeting with a reindeer herder, who had herds in both Britain and Scandinavia, led to a surprising outcome. Without being prompted on the question of reindeer urine being drunk by shamans, the herder told Letcher the following story:

Once, while living amongst the Saami, his hosts started feeding reindeer with fly-agarics, which the deer consumed with some relish. Waiting for nature to take its course, the fruits of micturition were collected in a bucket (strapped to the animals’ flanks perhaps?), boiled up in a pot (I’m guessing to concentrate the brew or perhaps to make it more potable) and shared round.

“I don’t drink and I’ve never taken any drugs” he told me. “But I took some when they passed it round. Well, you have to, don’t you? They expect it. Anyway, I was high as a kite I was, high as a kite. There was an old eighty year old grandmother with us, and I fancied her, that’s how high I was. High as a bloody kite!”

Letcher’s last word on the topic? “So there you have it. A report from a credible witness that some Saami do drink fly-agaric-imbued reindeer urine and that the effects are palpable. I stand corrected.”

Amanita muscaria - the Fly Agaric
Image by Onderwijsgek, Creative Commons Licence

And if you’re wondering why shamans would choose to drink Fly Agaric-containing urine (both reindeer, and human), rather than eat the mushrooms raw, Paul Devereux’s wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (Amazon US and Amazon UK) may provide at least one possibility:

Filip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swedish prisoner of war in the early eighteenth century, reported seeing Koryak tribespeople waiting outside huts where mushroom sessions were taking place, waiting for people to come out and urinate. When they did, the warm, steaming tawny-gold nectar was collected in wooden bowls and greedily gulped down. The Amanita muscaria effect could apparently be recycled up to five times in this manner, and, remarkably, was less likely to cause the vomiting often associated with the direct ingestion of the mushroom itself.

So, next time you’re at a party and everyone’s discussing magic mushrooms and urine drinking, you’ll be able to set them all straight. The Daily Grail, always here to help you improve your social conversations.

  1. And where did Letcher think
    And where did Letcher think he learnt the truth? Or was he yet another bored academic trying to stake out a little territory for himself with grand claims or rather grand anti-claims. The whole professional debunking thing often goes overboard like this in order to feel itself being spiffy and new, but often as not it is just someone posing as an expert who is actually not a person of much direct experience.

  2. Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holy
    Greg I’d’ve disputed Andy Letcher’s original claim anyway.

    I used to know a Gurdjieff/Ouspensky following Swede descended from the Saami and he was really quite withering about the ways of what he refered to as ‘Foolish Saints’.

    According to his take the likes of an Amanita intoxicated animal would’ve been viewed as communing with the mushroom Spirit making it therefore holy and untouchable at least until it came out of its trance whereas he argued that’s precisely when it should’ve been treated like Gurdjieff’s conscious sheep and eaten (though I personally maintain Gurdjieff’s conscious ‘sheep’ that was ‘eaten’ was actually Jesus).

    One Amanita story that may really be an urban myth though’s the idea Father Christmas’ red and white livery was based on it because until the early 20th Century Coca Cola advertising campaign he was usually depicted garbed in green connecting him to Robin Hood Khidr The Green Man Osiris etc.

    It may be though Coca Cola were unconsciously tuning into something placed on the Jungian Synchroncity Net so to speak.

    1. You must admit though that
      You must admit though that the circumstantial evidence for the linkage between amanita and Christmas is high – pardon the pun. I have recently started collecting Christmas oriented chocolate molds from the early 20th century, and there is a lot of reference to gnomes. So many of these molds depict Santa as a large gnome, and so many other gnome molds are associated with “toadstools.” There is a tradition in Europe of marrying gnome and toadstool imagery too.

      Here is a recent orgonite wall hung plaque I made from a large antique chocolate mold from Germany. It was called a “Santa” mold, but its more prominent visual is gnomish which is why I titled it a “Home Gnome.”

      I have never eaten an amanita, but way back in the 1970’s I did several times baby sit some of my friends who gathered and ate the mushroom which grew on cow patties after warm rains. I must say the most prominent characteristic of mushroom stoners is “jolliness.” My friends would be transformed into jolly old elves and gnomes and generally be laughing their asses off for reasons obscure to me.

      If Coca Cola did originally contain cocaine then it wouldn’t be much of stretch to wonder if perhaps within the executive culture at Coke there may have been a slyness about drugs in general though it may be impossible to prove that anyone within the corporation inserted the reference into the Santa imagery. It is still a fun idea though.

      1. > I must say the most
        > I must say the most prominent characteristic of mushroom stoners is “jolliness.” My friends would be transformed into jolly old elves and gnomes and generally be laughing their asses off for reasons obscure to me.

        As in, the recent studies about how shrooms silence those parts of brains responsible for maintaining IDENTITY.

        Which, i have been told, is as disturbing as a cloudless sky.

        1. The way my friends did
          The way my friends did shrooms was to eat the caps and chase it all with lots of wine. Then they spent the next few hours laughing uproariously at what I knew not. Of course, they eventually came down and grew more pensive, but I always though that was because they were exhausted from all the laughing. They drank lots of wine with them. Perhaps that made for the jollies

          1. from the Tasting-Like-What-It-Grows-In-Dept.
            i never did like the taste of `shrooms and my friends and i tried so many different ways to make them taste ‘better’ — boiling them in tea, mixing them up in chocolate, sauteeing them…the tastiest way was chocolate

            each trip was different; sometimes it was just a body feeling, other times it was just my perception of time that would change and whatever else drug i was on at the time there would be a ‘rotating door’ effect, where i would be experiencing/be aware of the effects of one drug at a time

            also, always during the onset time i would experience what i call a roaring train…it would start of soft at first and then grow louder until the ‘shrooms actually started their effects…

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